The Unicorn (2019)

In some ways, I feel as if I were a little spoiled by the efficiency of this year’s quirky Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers, in which two friends run a business that helps strangers break up with their romantic partners in exchange for cash. That film starts with the titular business already in operation so that it can immediately launch into the gags set up by its ludicrous premise, wasting no time on justifying the scenario with a first-act backstory. I was nostalgic for that efficiency during The Unicorn, which spends almost a third of its runtime struggling to set up a very simple comedic premise: a young California couple attempts to save their flailing relationship by orchestrating a late-night threesome. Following the Breaker Upperers model, The Unicorn would already start with the couple on the hunt for the perfect partner to open them up sexually & romantically, so that it could pack in more blunderous shenanigans as they desperately attempt to actualize their fantasy. The backstory of how they arrived at the delusion that a threesome is a cure-all for their trust & communication issues could easily fit in a flashback or a single-scene set-up. At the very least, we don’t need a half-hour of setup before we launch into a premise already concisely teased in the title.

Still, even if it’s not the most efficient or structurally creative comedy around, The Unicorn is still about as funny & charming as you’d expect from a One Crazy Night comedy featuring a bunch of UCB & SNL regulars in bit roles, which I mean as a compliment. LA comedy scenesters Lauren Lapkus & Nick Rutherford star as the threesome-seeking couple, a pair of neurotic indoor kids who pretend to be far more social & adventurous than what they’re truly comfortable with. Familiar faces like Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and (beloved to me because of the trash gem Truth or Dare?) Lucy Hale pop up like Whack-a-Moles as the couple disastrously attempts to sleep their way cross Palm Springs as a means of saving their stalled relationship. Fueled by an ungodly quantity of hard liquor, these episodic challenges to the boundaries of their sexual comfort do drudge up some genuinely moving relationship-dynamics drama – à la similar LA indie comedies like Band Aid, Duck Butter, and The Overnight. Mostly, though, they’re an excuse for talented comedic performers to riff in uncomfortable sexual scenarios – creating audience tension for the jokesters to release. Luckily, the cast is very funny and easily carries what could potentially be a thin premise for a feature film – especially considering how well behaved the movie is structurally.

Shot, directed, and sometimes soundtracked by the Schwartzman/Rooney clan, you can occasionally feel artsy, Wes Andersonian aesthetics coloring this low-key indie sex comedy, but they mostly color between the lines. Beside the careful, old-fashioned build before launching into the premise, the film also falls into a common screenwriting trap that always drives me mad in conventional comedies. After the inevitable Third Act Fight between Lapkus & Rutherford, both participants are prompted to say “I’m sorry” in reconciliation, even though the girlfriend has clearly done nothing wrong and only the dude needs to apologize. It a frustratingly common trope, especially considering the other ways the film is conscious of challenging traditional comedic gender dynamics. The sincere bisexual experimentation, negotiation of terms before play, and constant checking in for consent are all refreshing to see sneak into a vanilla sex comedy this structurally conventional, so it’s a little disappointing to see it bookended by such familiar automatic-screenwriting-template decisions. I don’t want to sound like too much of a grump here, though. The movie is very funny, surprisingly sweet, and admirably open-minded for a comedy this conventional. If nothing else, the line “I’m glad we stopped before you did something you didn’t want to do” is remarkable considering the format in a way I doubt I’ll encounter again any time soon. Any complaints I have about its execution are likely just a side effect of finding something more to say about this simple, familiar pleasure other than “It’s funny.”

-Brandon Ledet

Never Goin’ Back (2018)

Although you’re very unlikely to find one with actual queer content, there’s always at least a hint of homosexual desire simmering in the background of most dude-bro buddy comedies. Pairings like Bill & Ted, Harold & Kumar, and the Dude & Dude duo from Dude, Where’s My Car? are always so hopelessly made for each other that their mutual boy-crushes can never be fully covered up by a “no-homo” balking at the indication. The A24-distributed stoner comedy Never Goin’ Back’s greatest achievement is in making that same-sex desire buddy comedy subtext an explicit part of the text, then shrugging it off like it’s no big deal (because it isn’t). The mutual sexual attraction between stoner-buddy protagonists that is usually covered up with frantic jabs of gay panic humor is presented so casually in Never Goin’ Back that is never confirmed whether the duo in question are a romantic couple or just good buds who sometimes kiss for fun. It’s a fresh take on material that could very easily feel stale, but it’s also kind of a shame that the way we had to get there was by making both protagonists female.

Two young high school dropouts turned waitresses hatch a seemingly low-stakes plan to spend their rent money on a beach trip, then earn the money back by working ten straight days of double-shifts. With the gorgeous utopia of Galveston, TX just one week away, they hatch a series of ill-advised schemes to keep their heads above water—schemes that land them jobless, arrested, impossibly stoned, and more broke than ever. It’s kind of an anti-heist picture in that way, with the clockwork efficiency of a well-executed plan replaced by the whims of two wildly irresponsible young women attempting to wing it on the fly and failing miserably at every turn. The central beach trip is a kind of MacGuffin, of course, with flashbacks to the girls’ past hijinks frequently interrupting the flow of the narrative for the sake of a gag—like a TV show highlight reel. Being desperate & stoned does have its inherent, escalating conflicts, though, especially since the girls are blunderously locked into a series of get-rich-quick schemes that all immediately implode.

The desperate need for money that drives Never Goin’ Back’s story beats makes for great comedic tension, but the film’s greatest strength is in contrasting raunchy shock humor with the tender earnestness of a friendship so close it’s indistinguishable from romance. The two girls at the center (Maia Mitchell & Camila Morrone) share drugs & kisses indiscriminately, draw dicks on each other’s sleeping faces as if life were a nonstop slumber party, and refer to each other as “Dude” as if it were the sweetest pet name imaginable. The small-town ghouls that get in the way of their beach trip (including SNL’s Kyle Mooney as an awkward-pervert roommate) all feel like stock characters we’ve seen countless times before in dude-bro comedies, but the total infatuation & blasé sexual ambiguity shared between the leads plays as one-of-a-kind. I’d love to see this same dynamic spread into the boy-boy relationship dynamics of the typical stoner buddy comedy, but what’s on screen here for now is so endearingly sweet (especially in contrast to the crass world that engulfs it) that I have to respect the film tremendously for the way it’s already pushing the thematic boundaries of its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Brigsby Bear (2017)

There was a time before DVRs, streaming, and even VCRs when watching television was a more communal activity. The idea of a “water cooler show” that everyone discusses in the days after it airs is still alive & well, but in the early days of broadcast viewing there was a more distinct cultural phenomenon of everyone watching the same show at once. When I was a kid my two religious appointment-viewing shows were The Simpsons & Saturday Night Live, two cultural behemoths that shaped my comedic brain while simultaneously doing the same for snarky kids & juvenile adults everywhere who I virtually shared a television set with, but never met. Brigsby Bear taps into that exact communal phenomenon and turns it into a horror show. What if there weren’t millions of other people watching The Simpsons at the exact same time as me? What if, in fact, I was the entirety of the show’s intended audience? What if instead of it being a show meant to entertain a massive amount of people it was instead produced as propaganda to warp my (and only my) developing mind? In Brigsby Bear, the answers to these questions are darkly funny & informed by awkward, whimsical quirk, but also lead to some fairly earnest, heartbreaking discoveries about abuse, therapy, community, and art.

SNL’s Kyle Mooney stars as the victim of such an elaborate betrayal, a thirty-something man-child who was raised as the sole superfan of the fictional television show The Brigsby Bear Adventures. The show, which chronicles the space-traveling adventures of its titular bear, was meant to raise him from when he was a small child until his current state as an emotionally stunted adult. As a result, it has the appearance of Teletubbies or Barney style kids’ television with the complex lore of a sci-fi series that has lasted hundreds of episodes over the course of decades. Along with enforcing propaganda about “only trusting your family unit” and how “curiosity is an unnatural emotion,” the show also teaches him increasingly complex math problems & provides a window of mental escape within his horrifically insular surroundings. Beginning where Room winds up in its third act, Mooney’s over-sheltered protagonist ends his lifelong confinement to a small space where television is his only contact with the outside world to explore a new world where “everything is really very big.” The problem is that in order to be integrated into a larger, more conventional society, he must leave behind his memorabilia altar to the almighty Brigsby and adjust to a new life where a show that only he’s ever seen is no longer being produced on a weekly basis; he’ll never know how The Brigsby Bear Adventures ends. His only choice, then, is to complete Brigsby’s character arc himself in a final, self-produced movie that will satisfactorily conclude the only story he (and only he) has ever cared about once & for all.

If Brigsby Bear were made in the snarkier days of the Gen-X 90s, it would be unbearably sarcastic & mean. Although it’s a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars an animatronic bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, it’s instead remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. Along with Mooney (who co-wrote the screenplay), Brigsby Bear features several sketch comedy performers (Matt Walsh, Andy Samberg, Beck Bennett) who somehow sidestep snark to hold their own dramatically with more traditionally earnest players like Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, and Mark Hammill. Only Tim Heidecker is allowed to fully ham it up in his single scene cameo as an objectively shitty action star. Everyone else plays the material straight, allowing the absurdity of the scenario to speak for itself. Mooney anchors the film by adjusting the socially awkward, overgrown teens he usually plays in sketches to convey a hurt, scared man-child who is unsure how to adjust to the expanse of the modern world, so he buries himself in his work, recalling outsider art projects like Marwencol or Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal. By crudely learning the art of filmmaking so he can complete the fictional saga of a space alien bear wizard, he finds his own place in society, making friends & learning to cope with an unbelievably tough adjustment along the way. It’s just as touching as it is strange.

I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that Brigsby Bear manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself. Regardless of how it was created to manipulate a single viewer/victim, its existence could only do the world good. Like an inverse of the haunted VHS tapes of The Ring, everyone who watches The Brigsby Bear Adventures is emotionally brought to life and I sorely wish I could count myself among them.

-Brandon Ledet

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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It’s been fifteen years since the release of the original Zoolander, which seems like an awfully long stretch of time before deciding the world needs a sequel. A lot has happened since 2001, including (perhaps least importantly) a major turnaround on Ben Stiller’s fashion world comedy’s cultural cache. Zoolander suffered mixed-to-negative reviews upon its initial release, but has since grown a strong cult following that seems too large to even consider “cult” at this point. I even remember personally going into the theater prepared to hate Zoolander‘s guts as a grumpy teenager & being wholeheartedly won over as soon as the explosive Wham!-soundtracked gas station gag in the first act. The funny thing about Zoolander‘s fifteen-years-late sequel is that it’s on the exact same trajectory for long-term cultural success as the first film. The reviews are dire. The box office numbers are hardly any better. However, the dirty little secret is that Zoolander 2, while being nowhere near as perfectly inane as its predecessor, is actually a damn fun time at the movies. Nowhere near every joke lands in the film, but it’s smart to flood you with enough impossibly idiotic humor that you’re bound to laugh at something, maybe even more often than you’d expect.

In order to justify its own existence, Zoolander 2 has to undo a lot of the happy ending denouement of the original. Former male models/makeshift political intrigue heavies Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) & Hansel (Owen Wilson) must again start from the bottom. Hansel has been horrifically scarred & is experiencing growing pains with his in-effect wife, an orgy of weirdos. Derek’s own wife has passed away due to his own failures as a businessman & custody of his son has been revoked by the state due to his total lack of parenting skills in areas as basic as “how to make spaghetti soft”. In order to reclaim their estranged familial relationships & earn back their rightful place on top of the fashion world, Hansel & Derek have to repair their irrevocably broken friendship, putting aside the narcissism that plagues them both so deeply. Obviously, the plot doesn’t matter too much in a comedy as aggressively vapid as this, but I do think there’s something oddly sweet about Zoolander 2‘s central bromance that wasn’t nearly as fully realized in the first film. Derek & Hans really do need each other. They’re entirely codependent in their joint efforts to understand a world that doesn’t make sense to their tiny, uncomprehending minds. It’s a fascinating, even touching companionship even if it is an assertively brainless one.

Zoolander 2 does have an Achilles heel, but it’s not exactly the first place you’d expect. The film sidesteps most concerns about being late to the table in terms of following up its original iteration by making the outdated, past-their-prime cultural irrelevance of the its protagonists a major plot point. The redundancy of a second film following the same protagonists as they transition from male modeling to a life in political intrigue is also avoided by adding concerns about familial bonds and, absurdly enough, radical Biblical interpretations & quests for immortality into the mix. Where the film gets a little exasperating is in its never ending list of cameos & bit roles. Even in the film’s trailer swapping an appearance by David Bowie for the much lesser musical being/tabloid fixture Justin Beiber felt like a weak trade-off (although Bieber is actually far from the worst cameo on deck; his time is brief & fairly amusing). The film is overstuffed with both celebrity cameos & SNL vets dropping in for a dumb joke or two. Will Ferrell was a welcome return as the impossibly wicked megalomaniac Mugatu, Penélope Cruz was charming (not to mention breathtakingly gorgeous) as a secret agent for INTERPOL’s fashion division, and current SNL cast member Kyle Mooney proved himself to be a stealth MVP as a double-talking sleazebag hipster piece of shit who’s ironically stuck in the nu metal 00s (an archetype he always nails without fail). These are just a few faces in a sea of many, though, and the nonstop torrent of names like Kristen Wiig, Willie Nelson, Fred Armisen, Katy Perry, and whoever else felt like walking through the film’s perpetually open door did little for Zoolander 2 except to make it feel a little sloppy & out of control.

There were thing I loved about Zoolander 2 & things I easily could’ve done without. The film’s Looney Tunes physics & complete disinterest in stimulating the intellect felt entirely in tune with the original’s sensibility. The vaguely transphobic joke about Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous model All in the trailer is not at all improved by being expanded in the movie. Even though Hansel & Derek are close-minded imbeciles who believe things like fat = bad person, their treatment of All is an uncomfortable mixed bag at best & mostly just distracts from the film’s better realized gags. Many of the celebrity cameos & bit roles equally feel like a waste of time that could’ve been better step, but Zoolander 2 decisively aims for a quantity over quality M.O. & by the time the film finds its stride far more of its jokes land than fall flat. I spent most of Zoolander 2‘s runtime laughing heartily, which might as well be the sole requirement for a movie this militantly irreverent to succeed as a finished product. It’s not the best comedy in the theater right now (that would be Hail, Caesar!), but it’s also not the worst (*cough* Deadpool *cough*) & I could easily see myself watching/enjoying the film multiple times in the future. If nothing else, that’s a far better experience than I expected based on its early reviews, which is pretty much how this whole ordeal worked out the first time around in 2001.

-Brandon Ledet